One thing’s for sure, we’ve had our fair share of motorhome’s over the past couple of decades and Wow!!!!…….We have definitely had a learning curve of what you really need in a van to make that small living space just so much more comfortable, practical and most importantly, completely reliable and functional, especially, if you’re going to be serious about life on the road either permanently or for just a few weeks or months at a time.
We’ve not just had our own motorhome’s but we also owned a separate motorhome hire business with its own fleet of mainstream vans from a variety of manufacturers. We’ve also travelled extensively both as a couple and a family of 4 in our own vans and we’ve sold and bought household name manufacturer models as well as individual self-build’s, we’ve also ourselves hired motorhomes’ on 3 occasions for trips to New Zealand and a rather surprise 6 month road trip in a tiny hire van through Australia, clocking up an incredible 23,000KM!!
There’s not much we haven’t learnt along the way, so here’s our own true insight into what you really should be thinking about including in that big purchase and what we couldn’t be without in a van, that essential kit list maybe a little different to what you think, forget the satellite dish and alloy wheels, this is our must have basics for a great on the road off grid vanlife experience!
Essential Essential Essential.….It’s our number one priority, think floors, ceilings, walls, doors, if building your own go O.T.T with it, remember it’s not just the obvious, don’t forget the beds, make sure the mattress is raised above the solid base, if not the mattress will get damp, sometimes very wet with condensation and that brings mould which you don’t want. The Froli Spring system is great, it allows air circulation under the mattress and adds sprung comfort where you need it. If you don’t want to go to the expense of the Froli system, use wooden slats to place the mattress over, the slats will help allow air to circulate under the mattress itself.
Whatever the budget, don’t overlook the condensation issues that you can get without a well insulated van, our first motorhome overcab area was soaking wet every morning, which meant a wet mattress, warped wood, mould and wet bedding that wouldn’t dry out, in the thick of Winter, you don’t want to be climbing in to bed to a soggy duvet!
Insulation that is hidden is great but extra internal carpet fitted to the walls and ceiling gives additional warmth and acts as insulation which is a great added bonus, we have pale grey on our present van and had neutral beige in the previous van, it will feel warm and will really help prevent that dreaded condensation problem, as well as helping to keep out the cold spots. If you’re building your own its easy to fit this in the build, try and get it on the interior of the habitation doors too, be warned, there aren’t that many standard manufacturers who fit this, we had to look long and hard to find one and ruled out many vans that came without it.
Don’t get mixed up with floor carpets by the way, this is different, we’ll talk flooring carpets or lack of them later in this piece!!
Most windows are double glazed, we prefer a Seitz flush fitting window, they are a flat type finish, don’t have distortion through the glazing and look contemporary in appearance, they are also good for not accumulating ice in sub zero climate as they don’t protrude like some double glazed windows, unfortunately, they are often only fitted to top end vans but if you are doing a self-build then you could look at fitting these.
Double floors are really important if you want to do any kind of Alpine trips, it will keep those water pipes warm to help prevent freezing and also adds great little storage compartments in the accessible areas, obviously a little tricky in a van conversion. Our first skiing trip in our British ‘Grade 3 Winterised’ van (won’t mention names at this point!) brought frozen fresh water and waste pipes even before we reached the Alps, they never defrosted the whole trip!!
We can’t stress this one enough, the freshwater tank must be inside the van if your going to do any kind of harsh winter tours, preferably in the main habitation area (under a seat) we’ve had tanks in the garage where they’ve frozen despite having blown air heating in there, so probably best avoid vans that have external fresh water tanks unless you’re content on just Summer in the Mediterranean! If you do have an external water tank or a tank in a garage then try and add some insulation around it to help stop any freezing, something such as a household hot water tank jacket or silver bubble foil insulation, although this will only delay the inevitable if you’re in icy weather.
Ensure the fresh water tank is as big as possible, if you can get a 100 Litre tank then great, we have about 70 Litre in our Sprinter, you use a lot of water in a short space of time so you don’t want to be filling up every day, also remember, in Winter it can be really difficult in some countries to actually find water, so the less filling up you have to do the better, water is precious, it’s to be used wisely and obtained at every opportunity.
When it comes to the waste water tank it’s less easy to fit inside the van, so many are fitted under the van, this is fine, except in harsh weather conditions where it’s recommended to leave the waste outlet open to allow the waste water to flow directly out of the van into a bucket, otherwise, it will probably freeze, which will leave you unable to empty waste in the vans basins, a shallow rimmed bucket that fits under the van, like a horse feed bucket will do the trick. Of course, you can always have a heating element in the waste tank which will help stop freezing. We’ve had frozen waste pipes and it can take ages to defrost, so take precautions before it freezes.
Alde heating is great if you can get a van manufacturer that fits it or a great alternative to look into if your building your own. It’s a silent, wet system, similar to household radiator heating, it’s powerful enough to heat the biggest of vans too and won’t wake you up at night when the thermostat kicks in, unfortunately it’s usually only fitted in the top end brands, we don’t know why other than costing, it runs off electric and gas which is possibly the only downside if you really want to be off grid for some time but for those who want sites and don’t mind filling up the gas bottles then there is no better option, it also heats the hot water super effectively.
Truma Blown air systems, the most common of heating and hot water out there, they come in a Truma 4 and 6 with electric and gas or just gas and also have controls to heat the hot water. They do what they say on the tin basically, we’ve had lots of these especially in hire vans, don’t forget Gas runs out quickly if your using in the Winter, every few days depending on the size of your gas bottle and on electric it’s not that powerful, especially if you’re on a site in Europe where you may only have 6 or 10 amp supplies compared to 16 amp in the UK. This is fine for casual camper travels but we wouldn’t recommend for the long term vanlifers’ out there, also most people forget that the blown air side of the heating actually uses the battery power, so when off grid, the vans’ batteries must be big enough to power the blown air side of the heating system before it will generate actual heating or else that red light will be showing a fault usually, at times when you definitely don’t want to be feeling the chill!
Diesel Blown Air heating systems and hot water are just great for the serious vanlifer’s out there, no more bothering with filling up gas tanks, changing gas bottles or the problematic red light faults that show all too often on some other systems. They are super powerful and the heat is instant, all you need is diesel in your van diesel tank and a really good habitation battery and you’re completely self-sufficient, we have a Truma 6 diesel and electric system in our own van so we have the option to run off both depending if electric is available, we have also had Eberspacher diesel systems if you want fuss free, then diesel is just the way to go.
Remember that Gas must be Propane not Butane if buying gas bottles, simply as that doesn’t freeze in winter. Also if you’re travelling in Europe with gas bottles, you’ll need different connectors to the UK if you’ve any chance of running out whilst over there you’ll need to take them with you or at least remember you’ll need to buy them over there before changing the gas bottles, they also have different actual gas bottles to the UK.
If you have a fitted Gas tank on the van, you’ll need the adaptor for each country to re-fill the tank.
Now you can see why Diesel heating and hot water is so appealing!!
This is such a super big important factor to keep the habitation part of the van full of life, the last thing you want is to be having to charge up at a campsite every 2 or 3 days just because you’re loosing batter power or lost it all together!
One things for certain to keep powered up you will need to invest in Solar panels on the roof which then trickle charge the habitation batteries to keep fully charged for longer.
If you have the correct systems in place, there is no reason why you can’t keep charged for weeks at a time, we have had 4 weeks without power during summer months in the past.
A compressor fridge is a great way to save on electric and gas connections, these work off the 12V system, they are super efficient, really cool, literally, and although they look small, they seem to fit an awful lot of things into the space!
This is so important to us but maybe not to all of you out there, we have a big invertor in our own van, powerful enough to use a household hairdryer and GHD hair straighteners each day (so important for life on the road!!) Check your own needs with a supplier who will suggest the best size invertor for you.
If you’re not sure what this is for, the invertor converts the 12V battery power to 240V power so you can use certain household appliances off the battery without the need to connect to an electric supply.
Down to the nitty gritty of the toilet here but it’s oh so important so must be mentioned! Firstly, most van toilets use chemicals to dissolve waste matter and deter smells, these are often a blue liquid colour or sachet that go into the toilet waste section.
To be environmentally friendly and hygienic they must be emptied in the designated facilities provided, for example, a campsite emptying facility or dump station, e.g aire de services in France, this is particularly important to avoid contamination in septic tanks etc.
It can sometimes be difficult to find an emptying facility, especially in Winter, so we used to keep a spare cassette tank in the van to swap when one got full. If you don’t want the hassle of the chemicals and being restricted to emptying at a designated place then the SOG system is designed to overcome this.
We have the SOG in our own van, we don’t need chemicals and if it’s completely full and we’re really stuck with finding a dump station (yes it really can happen!) then we can go back to nature and dig a hole to empty the contents or dispose down any normal public toilet as it is just natural contents in the cassette (we won’t go in to details).
You think you can do without one but actually, if you’re at all bothered about what you look and smell like then the shower is just vital in keeping you site free for any length of time.
It’s as simple as buying an off the peg black rubber solar shower if you really are stuck for space in a self build but that’s completely weather dependent and any time that the temperature drops and the idea of an outdoor shower sends you into a panic then you will need a proper fitted shower section fitted in the van.
Ideally, a separate shower cubicle works best but if space is limited then a combined shower/toilet space can work really well and does the job perfectly.
The main priority is to make sure the shower cubicle is entirely waterproof, so that you don’t get warping walls and mould, it’s surprising how many manufacturers build their factory vans without a waterproof shower cubicle, no idea why they want to do this as the last thing you want is water getting into the van walls, if you’re building your own it’s easy to get this right using the right materials.
Don’t forget, showering in a van is not like showering in a house, the boiler will only heat up the amount that it holds, so once the hot water is gone it’s gone and you’ll have to wait another 30+ minutes for it to heat up, we turn the taps off in between soaping down and are super quick to avoid running out of hot, no we’re not fans of cold showers!
If you have a garage area, it’s a really good idea to have an extra shower connection fitted in there, so on really hot days in the Med, you can hose off in the fresh air without getting over heated in the confines of the van shower room.
This one is obvious but believe us, there are some vans out there where there is so much unused or wasted space. If there’s a wall without cupboards, then ask yourself why? You’ll probably find it’s down to costing, for example, we eliminated vans that didn’t have wrap around ceiling cupboards around the bed area, also for us, large deep drawers in the kitchen area are really important, who wants to be bending on hands and knees trying to reach the back of a cupboard several times a day when you can easily just pull out a drawer and have the whole contents in view in an instant!
If you haven’t considered a fixed bed model, remember, there will be all that bedding, pillows etc to stow each day, they have to be stored somewhere. A fixed bed is just fantastic all round, no making up a bed every night and it will usually provide loads of storage space for all the clutter underneath, a transverse bed model is best for this as it will allow a really good ‘garage’ type area accessible from outside, ideal for wet, dirty or bulky items that you don’t want kept in with the living areas.
Don’t forget to think about the outdoor gear, tables, chairs, tool kit, spares, beach gear, ski gear, that’s without any other individual hobbies that you may have, you think there isn’t much to take but in reality it soon adds up and the last thing you want is to realise you haven’t the room or storage space available.
We’ve had an oven in the past but for us this was just a waste of storage space for the few occasions that we actually had use of cooking with it, also, they are so slow in cooking that it wasn’t worth the loss of space for us, this perhaps isn”t so important if you’ve got a huge amount of space such as an A-Class where a Tech Tower would usually accommodate the oven and fridge/freezer as one appliance.
Remember it’s really important to keep within the weight allowances of your individual vans’ payload, before buying or building, check the payload and stick to this, an upgraded chassis is always a really good idea if it’s available on the van model and the larger the payload the better. Use a public weighbridge to make sure the van’s legal once it’s loaded.
Unless you really don’t really mind about the state of the cleanliness side of living or touring long term in a van we would always recommend having all interiors as easy clean and fuss free as possible.
Think interiors that can be wiped over quickly and easily, simple door furniture, colours that you know you can live with and flooring that is more industrial in type that can withstand all weather eventualities, even if you take shoes off at the door like we do, there are always extremes when you’re half in the van soaking wet in a downpour trying to get boots off before stamping in a muddy footprint!
If you’re building your own don’t bother with carpets or curtains, if you’re buying and the van has removable carpets, we roll these up before using and put them into storage, we have washable rugs to put on the floor to make it cosy but when that sudden dust storm catches you out and floods the van with red sand then it’s an easy fix in the washing machine and a quick dust around to get things back to normal.
Now we don’t want to sound posh here but for us, leather seating is a big plus, maybe we’re too super fussy about cleaning or else too many times caught out with no vacuum available and road dust or sand blown covered furniture, leather is just great for wiping down the aftermath and keeping clean on the road, again you can always make it more homely with washable throws and blankets but at least you won’t be sitting in half the contents of the local Aire or beach!
Fly Screens, my goodness when you need these you are so grateful for them, most vans will have them on windows but not always on the habitation doors, if you can pay extra to have them fitted then it’s worth it, otherwise you can try and adapt a make do mosquito net to keep the annoying midges out.
If we were writing this just a few years ago we wouldn’t need to mention this point but now we feel that all vans should come with USB charging points rather than just a power point, nearly all gadgets now use a USB charger, so it makes sense to include these in the van.